More than a mentor: wheelchair basketball coach helps children succeed beyond the court
October 24, 2019
By the time Akeem Hassell finished warming up, basketballs were hitting the floor and the sound of wheelchairs whizzing by were filling the gymnasium.
Playful chaos is typical of the Friday night practices that Hassell coaches for members of Bridge II Sports' Team PRIDE wheelchair basketball team in Raleigh, North Carolina. The team consists of children with physical disabilities who are 7 to 13-years-old. Hassell usually starts the night with games like Sharks and Minnows for members to practice fundamentals, such as getting acclimated to the chair, which has angled wheels for speed and is more compact compared to a standard wheelchair.
Hassell became interested in the sport at age 9 after doctors told him that he would lose the ability to walk because of spina bifida, a condition that affects the spine from birth. He took that as a suggestion to become as active as possible.
“A lot of people use sports to be healthy, stay in shape, to have a sense of well-being, or to be competitive. All of the above applies to me,” Hassell said. “Wheelchair basketball is kind of like my antidepressant. If I didn’t have wheelchair basketball, I probably would be in a very dark place. It has given me a certain quality of life.”
Since before he graduated high school, Hassell knew he wanted to work for Bridge II Sports. He did his senior project on wheelchair basketball because he knew that many people weren’t aware of the sport. When asked by a teacher why he wanted to work for the organization, he replied, “to better shine my light in someone else’s life.” A decade later, he is shining his light as a program assistant, coach and mentor for the children of Team PRIDE.
Hassell takes the life lessons he has learned both on and off the court to help younger boys and girls with anything they might be going through.
“Being a wheelchair user, you experience different medical things so you always want to be prepared. A lot of the times youth don’t know that and aren’t taught that, so sometimes [they] have to learn how to be independent and not always rely on mom and dad,” Hassell said.
While he has years of experience to share with his players, Hassell’s coaching style is more than techniques and tricks. He says coaches at Bridge II Sports cultivate individuals to help them have a better quality of life– from incorporating fun games during basketball practice, to helping them set goals for themselves at home, to answering questions about using a wheelchair or other medical devices.
Bridge II Sports is an organization that “creates opportunities for children and adults with physical disabilities to participate in team, individual, and recreational activities,” according to their website. The organization offers 11 adaptive sports for individuals with disabilities, including air rifle, archery, flamethrower boccia, cycling, fishing, iron bulls goalball, golf, kayaking, sitting volleyball, track and field, and wheelchair basketball.
Over half of Team PRIDE’s wheelchair basketball players have started playing because they met Hassell at different medical clinics in the Raleigh-Durham area. In addition to providing the wheelchairs and basketballs, Bridge II Sports also provides transportation to and from practices for some athletes who would otherwise not be able to attend practice.
Hassell said he likes to keep instructions simple and fun because he knows that children usually have short attention spans, but he also works with players who are serious about wheelchair basketball and are considering playing at the collegiate level. Since there are only two wheelchair basketball programs in North Carolina, many interested players will travel up to two hours to attend practice. Hassell’s hope is to keep the program going as long as possible so that eventually they will have a feeder system for athletes to become Division level athletes.
Other than being a coach, Hassell plays competitive wheelchair basketball at the Division 2 level. Yet even at his own practices, he never stops helping other younger and Division 3 players.
“My whole life, I don’t care about being rich or famous,” Hassell said. “I think my purpose on earth is to shine my light in the realm of wheelchair basketball and to teach the youth as much as possible from what I know to help them have a better quality of life.”